Friday, 18 November 2022

Heard-only Warblings: A Lister's Dilemma

In this post I address the thorny issue of heard-only ticks and what I do about them on my list. For example, regular readers may remember back in May when I went to Kent for the Elenora's Falcon that I spent a frustrating few hours on the coastal downs chasing after an elusive Sardinian Warbler before coming away with only a heard-only tick for all my efforts. Whilst a heard-only tick is clearly better than nothing, it's certainly not as good as actually having seen the bird. So where does all this sit with regards to my listing efforts?

So on my national list I have Lady's Amhurst Pheasant and the Sardinian Warbler as heard-only. The Lady A will almost certainly never be upgraded as I think the last surviving bird has "ceased to be". The Sardinian Warbler I hope to upgrade at some point. On my county list I have a couple of heard-onlys: Corncrake and Dartford Warbler. Fortunately I have actually seen a Quail in the county which is the other big county heard-only candidate. An opportunity to convert one of those came my way this last month which I want to blog about here. In addition, this month I managed to add another "heard-only" to my national tally and I will begin with that.


Heard-Only Radde's Warbler

Radde's Warbler has been a bit of a bogey bird for me. I've actively dipped it twice, once down in Cornwall and once on a trip to Wells Wood in Norfolk to try and see a very elusive bird. The word "elusive" is of course the operative word for this species: they are generally skulky little so and so's and they often don't linger long. In fact quite often they are found by a single observer at some coastal location and then never seen again so they are very hard to twitch, especially from the centre of the country where it's a a fair few hours drive to any coastal area. So when a Radde's Warbler turned up and lingered in Sussex at Beachy Head (not too far away at about 2.5 hours) I was of course interested. The trouble was it was found on a Friday before a busy weekend for me so I could only look on in frustration as it was reported regularly throughout the weekend; frustratingly Monday was the first chance I might have to see it. So on Sunday night I booked an Air BnB in Eastborne with a view to heading down there that evening. However, in my rush to get all this organised I neglected to look at the weather report and as soon as I'd booked it and told my VLW, she asked why I was bothering given the weather forecast. She was right of course: torrential rain and howling gales overnight and into the next day were forecast. Unfortuantely the Air BnB was non-refundable so I decided to head down regardless but to revise down my expectations considerably.

The drive down was difficult in the pouring rain and the strong wind though mercifully there wasn't too much traffic on the roads. I was reminded of how I'd come this way earlier in the year for the American Robin - here I was again a few months later after something that was altogether going to be harder to connect with. The AirBnB turned out to be a hotel along the sea front, only a hundred yards from where the Hume's Warbler had been on my previous Eastbourne trip. After an altercation with the shower room mirror which chose to come off the wall when I touched it, I settled in for the night, listening to the howling gale outside my window and wondering why I was bothering.

The next morning I was up, breakfasted and out of the hotel at more or less first light, which at this time of year is mercifully not that early. A quick five minute drive up onto the downs found me parking up and putting on all my waterproof gear though thankfully the rain had now stopped though it was still very windy. The previous evening I had messaged a local birder on Twitter and had got exact directions of where to go. As I tooled up another birder turned up so at least I wasn't going to be on my own. It was only a minute or so's walk to the clump of scrub where the bird was hopefully located and we got ourselves settled in for the duration. The wind was rather an issue though there was a sheltered side to the bushes by the path where we were standing. 

The sheltered side of the hedge

After about three quarters of an hour of fruitless waiting we both heard a repeated call over the wind from behind the bushes where we were looking which sounded like a Radde's to me. Thankfully Radde's have a rather distinctive call which doen't really sound like anything else so even over the howl of the wind it sounded good. We waited in anticipation though nothing more happened.

Looking to the East from where we were standing

My companion, who was down in Eastbourne en famille had to leave. A couple of locals turned up who had seen it in previous days. They told me that actually it favoured the other side of the hedge from where we were looking (so where we had heard it) so we went around that side to look. However the wind was impossible on that side and we all soon gave up. They went down to Shooter's Bottom, another area of scrub about a mile further along the headland where a second albeit much more elusive Radde's had been seen. I elected to stay where I was to see if I could connect with this bird. Late morning a bunch of elderly birders turned up and stood around aimlessly without contributing much to the collective effort. Finally I decided to give up and headed over to Shooter's Bottom myself. This turned out to be a large area of scrub, much more sheltered though a very large area to try to pin down a Radde's. I spend half an hour wandering around, appreciating at least the change of scenery and being out of the wind but without actually seeing anything. I did hear the brief scolding call of a Dartford Warbler but that was about it.

I drove back to the first location where I saw the two locals again, coming back to their car. I enquired about their luck but they'd had none at either location as well. That was enough for me so I decided to head back on the long slog home. As I drove I reflected that this had been similar to my Kent experience with the Sardinian in many ways: it was the same kind of coastal download habitat with a very skulking bird that I heard but never got to see, though this time the wind had been the main factor rather than anything else. 

Just to rub salt into my own wounds, here is a gripping photo of it taken by local birder @BEACHYBIRDER (taken from Twitter). Thanks also to him for his help with the location etc.

There is one more thing to add about all this: I do actually have another heard-only Radde's experience, back in October 2020 when I'd been to Norfolk for the Rufous Bush Chat. It was the end of the first day, just as I was walking back from the saltmarsh after having seen the star bird. At the small car park at the edge of the marsh I heard the distinctive call of what could only have been a Radde's. In fact I got out my phone to check that I hadn't "pocket played" a Radde's recording by mistake. This did actually happen to me once when I was on Port Meadow and suddenly started hearing a singing Iberian Chiffchaff, only for it to turn out to be a recording from my phone! It wasn't my phone and it never called again but it was distinctive enough. At the time I was more interested in having ticked the Bush Chat that I'd come for and then about getting to my accommodation as I was tired, so I never took it any further and it rather slipped my mind after that. Still, that is now two occasions where I've heard but not seen a Radde's Warbler so I think it's fair to say that it can go on my national list as a heard only. Like the Sardinian Warbler, I hope to be able to upgrade this to a full-blown tick sometime soon.

Dartford Conversion

I mentioned earlier about having converted a heard-only to a full grade tick. The opportunity to upgrade my county Dartford heard-only came when a typically elusive bird was found at Balscote Quarry up near Banbury in the north of the county. Whilst it was proving hard to see, it would occasionally show itself well enough for some rather decent photos to be taken. So suitable encouraged, one Saturday morning I decided to have a crack at it. It's a surprisingly long 45 minutes to get to the reserve, somewhere I'd only been to twice before: once for a county tick Dotterel in a nearby field and once for a dawn raid for a no show Red-necked Phalarope that had been found at last light the previous evening. 

Balscote Quarry, a nice little reserve with some good habitat

This time I arrived to see one other birder peering intently at something in the bushes in the distance. This turned out to be BS who had actually been watching the bird itself when I'd seen him though predictably it had now disappeared. BS had only been there about 45 minutes himself so that was quite a quick time to manage to see it. He had to leave for the long cycle ride back home (kudos for that effort!). After a while of fruitless waiting TM turned up along with a couple of local birders. They did all manage to see it very briefly at the bottom of a Hawthorn bush but I wasn't able to see it from where I was standing. TM also spotted a fly-over Merlin which again I missed. I wasn't doing very well here! TM had to leave but I was in no hurry and hung around. Meanwhile NT and his wife turned up.

Gradually the gloomy conditions started to improve as the sun came out. The Merlin flew over again and this time I managed to see it (hurray!). A Brambling flew over making its distinctive call and there were lots of Fieldfare on the wing in the general area. I was watching a likely looking clearing. After a false start when a Blackbird flew across, I managed a couple of flight views when the Dartford first flew into a large clump of Gorse and Brambles, before NT saw it at the base of the bushes and then it flew back out again towards the area where TM had seen it earlier. In both cases the flight views I had were good enough for me to be postive about the ID. So whilst I didn't get a crippling photo opportunity I at least was able to upgrade my heard-only county tick to a definite sighting. Job done!

A "proper" view of the Dartford, courtesy of Edwin Barson

As I drove home, taking the scenic route on the way back, I reflected that one of the advantages of having heard-only ticks is that you get the satisfaction of having ticked something twice: once when it's heard (albeit not with a full sense of satisfaction), and then again when it's upgraded to a full tick. Whilst it's always better to get the full tick first time, heard-only can often be a reasonable compromise over dipping. I'll have to be content with that for my Radde's Warbler for now.

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